The Golden Years of Lionhead

CHEERS, CHAPS!

Back in the first half of the 00’s, a little company from Britain by the name of Lionhead Studios was experiencing its golden age. For a short period in time the modestly sized company produced some of the most ingenious games that, while praised for originality and creativity, never got the true respect and attention for the awe-aspiring masterpieces that they were. In fact, the company is somewhat infamous for the eccentric Peter Molyneux who’s garnered quite a reputation for being somewhat of a pathological liar. And that might be one of the reasons why these wonderful titles were seen as mere shells of what Molyneux had promised…
The thing was that he would often make up new features on-spot at press conferences and the like. For example making up features on the fly that weren’t going to be included in the first place. This of course lead to enormous hype which was almost always met with disappointment. People didn’t see the games as what they were but what they were supposed to be and how they didn’t live up to those expectations. All and all these three might not have lived up to a certain somebody’s feverish Tourette-like bantering but nonetheless they were extremely fantastic titles that I will, quite vaguely mind you, try to cover.

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The creatures you can choose as your “pet”

Black & White 2 is the sequel that perfected the formula of its predecessor by focusing on the parts that work, while shaving off all the unnecessary extras. It’s comprised of about a dozen or so missions that get progressively harder and each takes up a good amount of time to complete but the game adapts to your play-style, so you can choose from being a complete pacifist to a complete warlord in order to achieve your goals. What is most eye-caching is of course the giant pet that can either help out the villager or fight alongside your soldiers and while the developers put major work into the development of the animal AI, the real star of the show is your cursor. There aren’t many games that re-invent the classical tool for scrolling, dragging and clicking. Here it’s literally an extension of your hand. The “hand” can be used to throw rocks, pull out trees, graze the grass, slap your pet and basically pick up and micromanage every individual person and resource in the game, while also acting as the more classical cursor to do all the standard building and ordering. One could just imagine the possibilities such gameplay mechanics would help to achieve in near-future VR experiences.

While there’s no fog of war per say, you still can’t see what your enemies are doing in their cities but the game does offer neat secrets in the form of side-quests that you can find in almost every map if you look around thoroughly enough. These offer fun side-activities when your waiting for a building to be complete or when your just on resource-gathering downtime. Considering a lot of strategy games make you sometimes wait around for some resource to be gathered, it’s nice that at least in this game you can fill the time more productively and have a bit of a laugh in the process.

One of the most important factors in these early Lionhead games was the inclusion of a morality system which, while not pioneered by them, was still a heavily emphasized part but mostly only had cosmetic influences, B&W2 in particular, with a couple of exceptions. Being evil for example meant you could focus your resources more on conquest and not pay too much attention to the needs of your people. So in the end, it’s a play between merciless and quick conquest with the price of the people’s well-being or giving them a good life but having a bigger chance of getting conquered yourself. So the whole morality thing was quite meta, before the term became widely spread.
NB: It’s also got an expansion that continued the main story of Greeks vs Aztecs.

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Fable Anniversary (2014)

Fable: The Lost Chapters was the finalized version that was originally promised… sorta. I mean the real-time growing trees were never included as promised but for the most part it had all the important features present. Originally released as just “Fable” for the original Xbox, The Lost Chapters port for PC was released about a year later with some added content that was left out of the original, apparently due to time constraints.
This is a title I sank hundreds upon hundreds of hours into, just messing around and not bothering with the main quest for the most part. The game is filled with quirky British humor and the overall setting and elements are derived heavily from Old-English mythos, starting from the world which takes place in Albion, which was the name given to Britain by Julius Caesar.
Again, this title was most renowned for its customizable player character and how he interacts with the world. The games biggest weakness is probably the somewhat lacking combat as you can get through almost every encounter by simply mashing the attack button. By the end you’ll be so over-powered anyway that the enemies serves as little more than minor nuisances. It also undermines the Mage abilities that are plentiful and cool to use on their own but spending your earned experience-points in acquiring new spells is quite pointless as your melee weapon will almost always be more effective.
But overall, the game is filled with content that usually has multiple outcomes, depending on how you deal with each given situation. However, this is where the imbalancement issues pop up as for example choosing the evil path usually means the game is more challenging as opposed to say being a holy warrior but then again, there is so much replay value that going through it each time as a different type of character can be treated as a difficulty curve in itself.

The game has spawned multiple sequels and has basically been the bread and butter of the company ever since both The Movies and Black & White were dropped completely due to low sales but not before receiving a single expansion pack each. Though honestly the newer Fable games have continuously been getting worse and there might have been a chance for amendment as the crazy man left the company and development was underway on a new Fable which has now been canceled by the publisher and the studio is facing possible closure.

NB: The game recently got a remastered re-release, called Fable Anniversary, which has been very warmly received. So if you’ve never played any of the Fable games, now is the best time to do it!

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The Movies is definitely the underdog of the bunch and an underdog in general really. Honestly, it could have just as easily been listed in the underrated article but this game needs a bit more coverage as it has gotten almost none, even back when it was released.
This is the premier sim game, apart from maybe SimCity but if you judge it by the most recent release, The Movies wins by a landslide. But it does need mentioning that the game suffered from a multitude of bugs but they’re quite understandable considering the undertaking. Again, this title is blessed and cursed with the ideas of Peter but this time I gotta give him credit: he demanded a game where you don’t just run a movie studio but can actually make movies too. Considering how difficult it is to come up with a coherent system that can accomplish such a task in a way that it would stay novel, while also keeping in mind the technical limitations presented back in the early 00’s and it’s just wonderful to see what they managed to come up with. Which makes it all the more sad that not a lot of people agreed or just dismissed it altogether. Maybe it was too niche of a genre or Peters big mouth hyped it up too much again but the game sold extremely poorly, to the extent that it was a real surprise that they even bothered to develop and release an expansion.

One of its most fascinating features was the ability to upload your created movies to a dedicated website where you could see the creations of all the other players. It was a very interesting eco-system, just prior to the creation of YouTube and Lionhead actually kept it alive for quite a while. I can just imagine what they could accomplish if such a game would be released in our age of social media and streamable HD video. It’s just remarkable that a game back then had a feature to upload its in-game created content for others to comment, rate and share. Definitely ahead of its time.
And while it had a very well though-out movie creation system, the actual sim element was also extremely fleshed out with a multitude of possibilities to create your studio the way you desired. Like the Total War series, that essentially has two distinctly different game types, so too can you focus on either just running the studio lot or spend most of your time actually creating and editing the films. Or you could do both. Lionhead was really into giving the most bang for your buck so you could play this game til kingdom come and (probably) not get bored. Heck, I’m surprised Microsoft (the current owner and publisher of the studio) hasn’t made a phone/tablet version of this for a quick cash grab as the formula for such a type of game is fully present – just remove the movie making and add in micro-transactions. As I said before though, it sold extremely poorly so that’s probably why they’d be cautious.
But what the game really suffers from is similar to that of Spore where the early gameplay is excellent but it really drops off once you reach the end-game. A similar thing happens here, where it’s really fun to run the studio in the early years but once you reach the 2000’s in the games timeline, it gets kinda redundant. While some consider the movie making gimmicky, I believe the biggest issue was when the dedicated online space for releasing the movies was closed, because that essentially killed the community as the YouTube we now know was still some years away to act as a replacement to the original dedicated web site. The only activity after that was the modding community which was really great!

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Black & White 2 | Fable: The Lost Chapters | The Movies: Stunts & Effects

As I sort of mentioned earlier, Lionhead as we know it, might be no more and it’s anybody’s guess if the IP’s will get any use and maybe more importantly, if they even should? Each one had something very unique to them and I hope that in the near future new developers will pick up and expand on these great ideas.

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